How wrong I was: golf as a dad

adapted from the “Against the Grain” column in the August 2016 issue of Golf Chicago Magazine

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today. — from Self-Reliance, by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Today we call this “flip-flopping.” Politicians are skewered for this. It’s how I justify being completely wrong.

Last year, just before the birth of my son, I wrote a letter to my wife pleading that she allow me to maintain my regular golf habit once I became a dad. My friends, family, and the seven people who read this column assured me I was delusional. Exactly one year later, I’m playing much less and much worse. But I wasn’t delusional; I was just naive. Here are six realities I hadn’t anticipated:

I don’t want to play as much as I used to.

It’s not that I don’t still love it; it’s just the cost is so much greater than before. A year ago I might miss Game 4 of the NBA finals to play 18, but then I could always DVR it. You can’t DVR fatherhood. Every moment passes, every milestone is reached, every smile and new discovery happens with or without you. Cliché, also true. How would I feel if I had missed Sam’s first words: “Dada” and “Garbage,” which he uses interchangeably.

I’m getting worse.

The day I published that letter, my handicap was 5.6 and dropping. Now it’s 7.9 and rising. I’ve played 18 holes five times this year, which puts me on a pace to play 10 times total — the lowest since Charles Howell III was relevant . The other day, following a gaggle of blades, shanks, and chunks — the kind that are commonplace when you don’t play — I actually mumbled: “I should quit this stupid game.” It was both a terrifying and seductive thought, to have an out from this expensive, maddening, paradoxical sport.

I struggle to stay in the moment.

The other day my buddy asked me where his ball went and I was too busy checking my nonexistent text messages to watch. I’m compelled to check my phone — a practice I’ve railed against for years — every few holes to make sure Sam hasn’t fallen off a table or swallowed a beetle. I know being present is paramount in golf, but the moment can feel trivial, even distracting, when your progeny is elsewhere.

I’m exhausted.

Another friend warned that parenthood brings a new meaning to the word “tired.”

A child’s brain and body are in perpetual motion, which means that, by default, so are yours. The energy you had to clean the house or meet your buddy for beers is usurped by this little dictator, who is relentless in his thirst for stimulation. Leftover energy is spent trying to translate his whines, grunts, and shrieks. If you’ve ever traveled to a non-English speaking country you understand the fatigue at the end of a full day trying to figure out what the hell is going on. So if this is happening for two thirds of the day, one third of the day loading clubs, unloading clubs, checking in, hitting balls, and walking for 18 holes playing a game at which you are getting worse, sounds exhausting.

I can’t manage my time.

Having children puts a different dimension on time. This year felt like three months, and a full day often feels like three hours and all you’ve done is walked around the block, picked bananas from your hair, and helped your kid open and close a garbage can 30 times. Sam wakes at 6 am and goes to bed at 7 pm. If I golf in the morning, I miss the most fun part of the day — playing with Sam and mom, eating breakfast, putting him down for a nap. Playing in the afternoon means forfeiting Team Nap Time from 2–3:30. And If I play in the evening, I miss the hardest time to be a single parent: dinner, bath, bedtime.

I feel guilty.

My friend says, “Guilt is self-inflicted” every time he drags in a five-footer, and while I don’t agree with its use in that context, he’s right. My wife is actually encouraging me to play, partly because she knows it’s fundamental to my being, but partly because every round, prorated, is costing us $200. But the deeper issue is wired in our nature. Our ancestors left the nest only for a purpose — to, say, hunt a mastodon. Chasing a white orb though a man-made field seems trivial and selfish by comparison. The same buddy whose push-slices I didn’t watch: “Man, I even feel guilty being out here and my daughter is at a friend’s house all day.” A year ago I would have scoffed, convinced his wife had eaten his manhood; this time I nodded and checked my phone again.

If Emerson is right, a year from now I’ll feel different. Maybe I’ll argue abandoning your sacred hobby will cause resentment toward your family. Or that you appreciate golf more when you play less. By then maybe every round will cost me $300 and maybe it will be worth every cent.

Maybe by then Sam will no longer be confusing me with garbage.

This is worth playing worse.

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